Chain Dance by Alexis Brooks de Vita

EXTRACT FOR
Chain Dance

(Alexis Brooks de Vita)


Chain Dance

CHAPTER ONE

 

JOHN THE CONQUER AND THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER: RHEA, BORN 1778

 

My man used to have a real name and a title, too. His name used to be John and his title used to be Conquer because he killed more drivers than any other man in the Quarters.

Maybe I sound proud of my man. He was a good man, while he was alive. Now that he's dead, he still tries.

I can't fault him. John never went out to stud even when Mr. Dennis offered him money. Mr. Dennis said, "John, look here. You go do up these young women for me, get them big with babies all strong-armed like yourself, and I might just give you something for it."

But my John said, "No, sir," because we made promises to one another.

Promises in the dark. Folks talk down about promises between people who ain't even free. They say what kind of fool takes a notion in your head to break your own heart, swearing to be true? "You are both a fool to believe in anything your owner never signed his name to."

But my John said, "If we can't have each other, we don't want nobody." And we promised to live together till we die.

And we did, too. I have gone beyond our promise and been with John long after he's dead. And I never held it against him, either.

That is, not until the devil's daughter showed her face around here.

That Mr. Dennis is the very devil. Folks on his farm had no religion, no knowledge of good and evil between the earth and sky and us trapped, running scared, in the middle.

But I come from a ma'am who taught me how to pray. Can't say my prayers turn out much like I want them to, though.

Like how I prayed to get rid of that Mr. Peter, the meanest overseer who ever clapped eyes on a woman.

I told you my John has killed many a driver. But I was scared to think what might happen if John up and killed this overseer, Mr. Peter. Because an overseer ain't no driver. And Mr. Dennis might not take it kindly if his overseer turned up a mass of rot and moss in the woods, like his drivers steady be doing.

But that Mr. Peter had his eye on me like I ain't never seen no man do no woman. Nasty man, that Mr. Peter. Brought disease and pestilence to the plantation and went around killing folks like a walking plague till we feared to farm the land for digging up dead bodies. The burying pit wasn't so far off that we didn't have to worry about where the wild animals dragged the body parts off to.

So I ain't told John nothing about this Mr. Peter and his mean old nasty eye on me. I figured, if Mr. Peter is so deadly he ain't even got to lay a finger on folks to kill them, I sure didn't want him to lay hands on my John.

But neither did I want his hands on me. So I up and said my prayers. "Powers that be, get this nasty Mr. Peter away from me," because spirits like it if you kind of sing to them.

And I said, "Powers in the sky, don't let my John the Conquer die," because what if Mr. Peter dragged my man off to the grave with him some way I didn't figure out when I said that first prayer?

The spirits must have been listening good. But sometimes what you fear is go'n creep up on you, no matter what prayers you say.

So that devil's daughter came on out from the spirit world, where she must have been hiding. She came out of the woods where her and her brother grew up wild as beasts and bloodthirsty as the bogeyman.

They wasn't free for one day before her brother committed to murder the man who stole them from their devil daddy. And only once he had blood on his hands rich and thick did the devil's boy come back on home.

But now that wild devil boy had got him a taste for murder. Couldn't stop killing up on folks. Wasn't home a minute, standing to wed one of the prettiest gals from out the cotton fields, and the devil's boy jumps up and blasts a hole straight through that walking disease, Mr. Peter.

His devil daddy don't say nothing but, "If you have finished with that business, son, let's get on with this wedding."

And Mr. Peter feeds the vultures.

So I'm watching the wedding and say to myself, "Ain't half bad, them prayers I done said." But still. Something just ain't right around here. I can feel it.

And sure enough. Three days. The devil's boy and his brand-new bride have hightailed it to the woods to honeymoon up and get acquainted with each other. Either they liked each other something fierce or ain't had much taste for each other's company because they're already making their way back to the plantation.

And here she comes, holding hands and skipping through the forest with them. The devil's daughter. On her way to rend my life and take my John from me.

Her first evil sign: her devil pap comes up to my shack and says, "Where's John?"

John hoists his big self off our pallet and comes out the rag door, squinting. He can't half see because the sun ain't even up yet.

I got a bad feeling.

Mr. Dennis says, "John, I need me a new overseer. My boy done killed the last one, and I'm tired of hunting up stray wight mens to do this job. Besides, I got a notion they keep secrets. Scares me when I sleep."

My John says, "Mr. Dennis, I know just how you feel, sir. Lot of folks can't sleep when it's overseers prowling the Quarters."

Mr. Dennis says, "So, John, guess what? It's you I done picked to be my new overseer. Driver, too. Everything. You're big enough. Here. Take this whip I brought you."

John says, "Sir, no disrespect. But I can't do no such thing."

Mr. Dennis blinked. Stepped back like he needed to think about this a little minute. Said, "Say what, John?"

My John didn't miss a beat. "I done spent my whole life, sir, keeping your drivers and your overseers off my people's back. How can I take that whip in my hand and turn driver my own self? It'd be like I turned traitor."

Mr. Dennis reared back and peered at John like maybe he'd never got a good look at him before.

Then Mr. Dennis shook his head like he must not have heard right. Tilted his head to one side and kind of studied up on John.

I held my breath, thinking fast of what to say before Mr. Dennis decided to ply that whip his own self.

But then Mr. Dennis looked like he made up his mind to laugh it off. He said, "John," chuckle, chuckle, "boy, I'd best give you a minute to wake up. We ain't out here before sunup playing no games, now."

John didn't take that minute Mr. Dennis gave him. "Sir, I been sitting up here wide awake since sundown, waiting on you. I already knew what you was coming here to ask me."

Mr. Dennis bust right on out and laughed. "John, John. You know me better than that! Don't you? I didn't come here to ask you nothing."

John looked confused. "But, sir-"

Mr. Dennis clicked his tongue like a woman who ain't got no more time for nonsense. "I've done my asking, John. I have dragged around these Quarters for two or three days now asking who the men respect and the women trust. And I ain't got but one name. Yours." Mr. Dennis squared his shoulders back. "So I have done my asking. I ain't standing here asking you nothing. I'm telling you, John. Take this here now whip in your hand. And put a gag in your sass." Mr. Dennis held out his own hand to show John a whip looped around the palm like a snake coiled to strike.

John didn't flinch. And he didn't say nothing more but, "Sir, I can't do no such craven thing."

Mr. Dennis lost what patience he never had. "Oh yes, John. You most certainly can do what I say. And more to the point, you better. You are going to take this whip in your hand or on your back. It's all the same to me."

"Sir, it ain't the same to me. I ain't never go'n take that whip in my hand."

I said, "John. Please."

John said, "Woman. Hush."

And Mr. Devil Dennis speaks up. "John, you best listen to that big-belly woman of yours." Because I was carrying our first child. Soon turned out to be our only child, too.

John shook his head. "I done listened to both of you all, sir. And I done said my say. Which one of you all don't know that no means no?"

I ain't never seen quiet like the quiet that came over Mr. Dennis, at that. He looked like a man struck by a revelation.

I'm whispering, "John, say 'sorry, sir.' Say you didn't mean it, John. Please, John," but John ain't letting on that he hears me.

Mr. Dennis heard me though. And he's twice as mad when my John doesn't say another word.

Next time Mr. Dennis opens his mouth, I hear fire roar and smell brimstone on his breath. "John, you are going to teach my field hands to mind me one way or another. It looks like you have chosen the hard way. But like I said, it makes me no never mind, as long as the job gets done."

And with that, Mr. Devil Dennis turns his back on my John and sticks two fingers in his mouth to whistle up some mens to come and get my John.

They don't like it. But they drag my John out and strap him to the whipping post.

Mr. Dennis comes toting a gun, long and pointed.

He lays it on the ground. He uncoils that whip off his hip. He hefts it, like he's measuring the distance between him and my John, where John's all tied up.

And then Mr. Dennis rears back and snaps his arm forwards and lays into my John's back.

One stroke. And the skin puckers like it's rising to kiss the whip. Blood runs behind the whip trail like juice from a woman in love.

Two strokes. The skin grabs hold and caresses that whip like it ain't never letting go. And now the blood runs like tears down my face.

Four strokes. Skin gets ripped across cuts already made. Nobody should be this close to my John, all up in his flesh and blood, but me and our baby. This is wrong.

Eight strokes. Bone shows, but my John won't let one sound come out from between his lips. So I scream for him.

Sixteen strokes. My John's blood runs like fire and the flood over the growing grass, both green and red where he sags on the sides of his feets because he can't stand no more.

Thirty-two strokes, and I'm shrieking like a madwoman, tugging and yanking at the arms that hold me back.

Sixty-four strokes. And I have fallen to the ground and broke their hold on me and crawled and scrambled to throw myself between my John the Conquer and that devil slaver Mr. Dennis.

I'm in the grass and the gore, piecing back together bloody strips of my John's back and pleading, "No, Mr. Dennis, sir. I'll do anything. Take and tote that whip my own self. Just don't whip my John no more. Sir, can't you see you killing my man?"

The whip falls again, and I'm face down in the blood and mud now, blinded.

When I come to, I find that folks have carried me and my John back inside our shack and laid us out like maybe we're dead, together.

We wake up alone.

I'm on my back. I can barely see the slabs of ceiling over my head for that whip cut I took across my face. I roll over and go to cry on John's shoulder. He's facedown, so still I think he's dead. But his skin burns under my cheek like cooking stones.

After a while, he turns his head so I can see where he's been crying like a baby.

I say, "John, I love you. And I'm still go'n love you when you live and take that whip in your hand and be the new whip man."

He fell asleep. Or passed out.

And next morning in the field, here comes the second sign. That devil's daughter, Heaven.

My poor man is bending over in the field. He can't rightly stand, but Mr. Dennis and his mens done dragged him here to make a point.

John is swaying on his feets, groping for cotton bolls like a blind man. And a chill wind blows like it's coming to hold him up.

Next thing I know, John ain't just standing and swaying but sets in to moaning and rolling his eyes all up in his head, like when we was young and had run off in the trees and the swamp together. Some of that moaning might be pain, but some of it? I'm ashamed to say what it sounded like to me.

"John," I called, and ran and caught him by his arm before he fell in another faint.

But them Quarters mens? They never looked up.

When my poor man woke the next day, he stumbled up to Mr. Dennis in the field and took that whip right out of his hand. Not another word of complaint.

Maybe I'd done wrong to set my man to take that whip and live. But now that he'd done it, there wasn't no turning back.

Maybe I got what I deserved. Because in a couple more days, the third evil sign ripped my life in two: the first half was happiness, which was gone for good, and now misery came to stay forever.

The devil's daughter came on home.

She came out of the woods with her brother and his bride, laughing and crying, clean out of her mind. But she wasn't so out of her mind that she couldn't keep her beady little eye on my John.

Two or three weeks, and my John and that devil's brat are hightailing off to the woods together. And fool me, I'm off after them, steady telling myself, "Has my John gone crazy, or has he lost his mind?"

Because a blind man can see that if Mr. Devil Dennis catches hold of my John one more time, my John is going to have hell to pay.

And Heaven, too. That devil's brat.

So I'm off after them.

And I fell and twisted my leg in the burying ditch.

I told you that burying pit got full up when Mr. Peter was around here, cursing people with his evil eye. But that was some time ago. Folks in the pit have been gnawed down to bones by time and the seasons and the wild beasts.

Now, I have never been one to say a mean word about the dead. I say prayers for them and to them, when the mood strikes me right. You can get you some good results that way. Only, most of the dead, once they have turned to bone and ash, you have got to be careful dealing with them.

They have changed on you.

If you go out there and rustle their skulls and disturb their rest, that's a different matter. I wouldn't recommend it. Not unless you're hardheaded and just don't care what happens.

But me, I wasn't like that. I had John's baby bigging in my belly, and I wanted to live. So when I fell in that pit and couldn't get out, I set in to screaming and clawing my way through them dusty bones.

And they started in to rattling like they was telling me off. Bones said, "Woman! What you doing in here?"

And I said, "John! Come find me!"

And bones said, "Let me catch on that warm slim ankle, there. I ain't felt nothing that good in a long time."

And bones said, "She don't want that wet warm body of hers, I know somebody can use it."

And bones said, "Baby, too. Feel on that big hard belly." And their teeth was just clacking and grinning in the dark.

And me, I was screaming for help.

Me and them bones was at it all night. I don't know to this very day where my John and that devil's wench had got off to, that they didn't hear me.

If John heard me, he didn't care. I was out of my mind with fear when folks found me in the morning.

Why them folks come looking for me in the burying pit, I'll never know. Maybe they figured that devil's brat did away with me, once and for all.

And my John was in the fields that day, toting the devil's whip.

Me all limp in the people's hands, I opened my eyes in the sunlight and dust and seen the evil growing out of my poor John like horns on his head when folks carried my body on home past the field. My John turned and watched, giving me his new evil eye.

John ain't come to see about me for two or three days. I lay up in our shack just wishing I was dead, aching with the pain in my heart. If I could have moved, I would have crawled on back to that pit and flung my fool self in it. Lucky for me, I guess, that John had become the Whip Man, because I couldn't have crawled out to go pick that cotton, even if Mr. Dennis had whipped me to death.

I couldn't move. But my baby sure could.

It made my belly climb up like it was going to push through the roof and greet the day. It made my belly roll to one side like it was going to fall clean off and crawl across the smooth dirt floor. Then it made my belly roll to the other side like it changed its mind and was going to split and go two separate ways, like me and my John.

Then one night, something like strong hands came and started pressing that baby right out of me.

Pain whipped up my spine and shot out between my teeth in screams.

The pain was sharp and deep. And, I'm telling you, I'm a woman who knows pain. That lash I caught for John wasn't my first. My poor back is a sight that can shock your eyes.

But that little baby getting rocked out of my body by hands I couldn't see was pain such as I ain't never dreamed it could be.

Awake, I called for help.

Fainted to sleep, I'd see claws rake my belly from the inside.

But the baby ain't came. Just rocked back and forth and up and down, like he traveled alongside me on a sea of despair.

For days, my John ain't showed.

The womens came and tried to help me with my busted leg and my baby. They said, "Push, Rhea!" and, "Don't push!" and "Lay still," and "Roll over on your side." Because, truth be told, nobody had no idea what was wrong and how to fix it.

Till I woke up in the darkest part of one night and seen sitting here beside me my John. Only, when I opened my eyes all the way and said, "John, it's you," he said back to me, "Don't you never call me that fool name John the Conquer no more. My name is Whip Man now." And he set his hands on me, and that pain shot through me like fire.

I tried to pass out but the pain slapped me awake. All I could do was close my eyes. And when I did, I seen claws sprout right out of my John's hands to match the horns shooting out of his head. He turned and looked at my closed eyes with his own glowing red just like that blood he spilled at the devil's feet, getting whipped into the Whip Man.

And I said, "John, the Whip Man ain't you."

And he said, "I told you, woman. My name is Whip Man now." And he dug in and gouged out my belly like a wild beast.

I knew I was a goner. I'm lolling and rolling my head to one side to see what might be left of my John catching my blood in a cooking pot to drink it down. I beg him, "John, baby, where is the womens who was helping me?"

And this new man who ain't my John says, 'If womens come through that door, I swear I'll eat them alive." And he licked his tongue out between his lips.

And just in the gray light of morning when I see the bones crawl out of the burying pit to come get me and my poor baby, I hear that baby cry.

I opened my eyes.

And it was John. My old sweet John the Conquer. And he's holding my little wiggle-butt brown baby to his chest like any woman couldn't do more gentle.

Singing to the baby, too.

John looked at me. And his eyes was brown as the good earth. And his smile lit that shack like the sun.

I said, "John, it's you."

And he said, "Rhea, woman, I love you." And he put the baby to my breast and hugged us all three together.

But no time, and the devil's daughter ups and drops her a baby, too.

Wasn't we all scared, out in the Quarters? "What will that crazy Mr. Devil Dennis do to us hardworking folks, now?"

But my John ain't quivered, and he ain't quaked. He stood straight and tall and said, "Wasn't me did no wrong."

Even when that whip-happy Mr. Dennis came for him, my John said, "Rhea, you got to believe me, baby. I ain't touched that woman. Her baby ain't mines."

I shook my head. It hurt me to do it. But I said, "John, you ain't never studded when Mr. Dennis told you to. You ain't studded for good times nor for money. But you was always one for love, John. I believe you done loved that devil's daughter, and the devil's come to make you pay the price."

That devil said, "I ain't meant my gal to love no fool ain't even free. I ain't got no family left but her and my boy. And I had it in mind that she'd be a wight woman for me, never mind her ma'am was one of you all. Now look, you worthless no-account field hand, what you have done. You gave her your baby and ruined her for good."

And Mr. Devil Dennis whipped my John without mercy and said, "Whip Man, you ain't bigged the bellies I told you to, and you turn around and big the only belly you know I didn't want you to touch. You don't even know what to do with this here. I'd better take it and keep it out of trouble for you."

And he cut my John till he wasn't a man no more.

Tears stood in my eyes till I couldn't see. There comes a time when you daren't cry.

I stood still and close by my John while his good blood ran and my baby slept. When he hushed to screaming, I said, "I don't care what you done, John, and I don't believe no lie, neither. I'll stand by you till you die, and it looks like that might be any minute now, baby."

I wanted to take him on home.

But wouldn't none of the mens touch him to drag him back to our shack. They turned away and said, "Let the womens lay hands on a woman." Because what happened to my John was a curse and a shame.

So it was me with my baby strapped to my back who had to drag my man, my own self.

The womens came and saw me and said, "Rhea, we'll help you, child. You're a good woman who never gave up on your man."

I said, "We made us a promise long ago. To stand together till the day we die."

Only, he ain't died. Not yet.

I pulled shut our rag door, and I lay myself and my baby down next to my John. I ain't tried to staunch no blood. Figured that wasn't no use, with him already dead in the sun, like that.

Day turned to night. I couldn't figure why John's body ain't set in to stinking, in this heat.

Then I woke to find him nuzzling after my breast milk. So I turned on my side and fed him.

The next day, a woman named Sister came to me in our shack. She said, "Rhea, evil days done fell on us around here. What can I do for you, to help?"

And I said, "Fix my baby boy a sugar teat. I need my milk to nurse his pap. John ain't died, but he can't live on air."

So Sister held our baby boy. And John the Conquer died under the whip and the knife, and we watched him get born anew, taking suck like a child.

Now everybody called him Whip Man. Not because he toted that whip no more. He didn't. But because when you looked at him, all you could see was what the whip had left behind.

The whip ate deep and drank plenty of blood. You couldn't rightly tell what you was looking at, when you looked at my Whip Man.

Watching Whip Man suck, Sister said, "Rhea, look out. That devil's daughter done up and died. Could be you two is going to have more hell to pay."

I said, "Sister, we done paid hell and Heaven, too."

And Sister laughed a little because that crazy Devil Dennis done named his evil little wench "Heaven."

And then the dead bones of Heaven's conjure woman grandmother, laid up alone till she shriveled and died in her shack, rose up and started to dance.

It was night. The sky was bright with stars. Somebody lit a fire near our shack, so folks could gather and recount all the strange goings-on at the farm.

And that dead body, wrapped in a little skin and a winding cloth around her hips, came wiggling and stomping in the dirt.

When this woman was alive, she was a powerful conjurer. She could tell the future. She could make babies in your belly, or bring Mr. Dennis and whatever overseer crawling on hands and knees to beg her please make things go right around here.

But when the spirits seized her, told her, "Come on back to the land of the dead and the ain't-happened-yet," that conjure woman would lie right down and sleep so she took neither food nor water.

But when the devil's brat came straggling home, her old conjure grandmother had up and died.

Folks said, "She must have looked down from the starry sky and said, 'I best get while the getting is still good.'"

And she got. Didn't leave anything but her body behind.